The moment is fast approaching when Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, may have to make the most difficult decision of his career — whether to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and risk triggering a conflagration that could spread across the Middle East.
Israeli experts believe the point of no return may be only six months away when Iran’s nuclear programme will have — if it has not already — metastasised into a multitude of smaller, difficult-to-trace facilities in deserts and mountains, while its main reactor at Bushehr will have come online and bombing it would send a radioactive cloud over the Gulf nations.
Mr Netanyahu has consistently called Iran the most serious threat Israel faces. President Ahmadinejad of Iran has called for Israel to be obliterated and his Revolutionary Guards supply training, money and weapons to both Hezbollah in Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, and to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, whose missiles are believed to be capable of reaching Tel Aviv.
In the run-up to his election this year, Mr Netanyahu promised that “under my Government, Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear”. Yet Mr Ahmadinejad has promised to produce 20 per cent enriched uranium: a big step towards weapons-grade fuel.
With the Iranian threat at the front of his strategic thinking, Mr Netanyahu has surrounded himself with old comrades from Israel’s most prestigious military unit, the Sayeret Matkal, or General Staff Reconnaissance. Mr Netanyahu served in the elite unit in the 1970s under Ehud Barak, who went on to become Israel’s most decorated soldier and later Prime Minister in his own right.
When Mr Netanyahu came to power, he made great efforts to recruit his former commander as Defence Minister. Mr Barak serves with another former leader of the unit, the Deputy Prime Minister, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon. The Israeli Prime Minister has hard-wired his core Cabinet with so much military experience for a good reason. Striking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a huge military and political gamble. Although Russia has delayed supplying Iran with S300 anti-aircraft missiles, which could weaken any Israeli attack, the air force would have to mount one of its largest long-range attacks to have a chance of disabling Iran’s nuclear installations.
Earlier this year a report by Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warned that “a military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible . . . (but) would be complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate”.
At roughly the same time, Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, went on a covert visit to Israel to seek assurances that the new Government would not surprise the Obama Administration with a sudden unilateral attack.
In 2007, in what is often seen as a trial run for an attack on Iran, an Israeli squadron flew undetected through Turkish airspace and over Syria’s unprotected border to destroy what was thought to be a nuclear facility under construction with Iranian and North Korean support.
In June 2008, the air force staged exercises over the Mediterranean, with dozens of fighters, bombers and refuelling tankers flying roughly the same distance as between Israel and Iran. Earlier this year, Israeli jets again carried out a long-range bombing mission, hitting trucks in Sudan that were believed to be bringing Iranian weapons to Hamas via Egypt.
In the immediate term, the threat of a strike has receded. Israel is satisfied that Iran’s hostile stance towards the international community has increased the chances of serious, crippling sanctions. Officials noted that for the first time Russia seemed to be serious about isolating Tehran.
But that international front could easily crack, and then Mr Netanyahu would be faced with the decision on whether to order his bombers into action. Iran has already threatened to bomb Israel’s cities with its long-range missiles should its nuclear facilities come under attack.
It could also, in stages, order Hezbollah to launch rockets across the northern border. The attack could come in conjunction with a Hamas assault from the Gaza Strip.
Alternatively both sides may choose to do nothing. Some analysts believe that Israel might tolerate Iran as a “threshold nuclear state”, capable of building a bomb but not testing it.
Iran could opt for the path chosen by Syria in 2007, if Israel strikes at isolated facilities miles from an urban areas, where the only casualties would be technicians and guards. After the strike against Syria, neither side admitted what had happened, thereby avoiding a war and saving face.